Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Je comprends votre impatience"

I have two reactions to Sarkozy's post-election address to the nation. First, the tone: Sarkozy's is that of an exasperated parent attempting to explain to a petulant child why strict discipline is actually something for which the child will be grateful in later life. He may well be right, but you can be sure that the lecture isn't going to go over well with the child, who has just discovered the power to make life difficult for the scold. What's more, the president isn't very good at this mode. He's a boxer by nature, who likes to throw punches in his speeches. But you can't punch a child.

Second, the substance: essentially Sarkozy patted himself on the back. He's done all the right things, the things that "you" (the French) elected him to do. "You" may not yet have seen the effects in your daily life, but we're not going to change a thing. Even the things we are going to change, the like carbon tax, aren't really a change: we're just waiting for our partners to realize how right we were.

The steadfastness is admirable in a way, but it fails to take account of the change in the country's temperament. Sarkozy's formula for reform was--I have said this before--at least coherent and in some respects plausible, but it was never universally accepted. He did, however, persuade an important group of swing voters to give it a try. He now appears to have lost that group. To win it back, he needs to show some understanding of how their confidence in the likelihood of success has changed even if his hasn't. But he didn't even attempt this. He seems to believe that the case is self-evident, that it has always been so, and that the advent of a major economic crisis has in no way changed this.

I hasten to add that he may be right on the merits, at least on some issues. I believe that he is right on the need to extend the working life of most French people. I think that he's wrong in his refusal to contemplate tax increases of any kind, including on the wealthy. I think he's wrong to believe that everything that can be done to alleviate unemployment has been done. I think he's wrong to make sweeping (and impossible) promises to farmers while neglecting industrial workers and state employees, who are also in difficult situations. His generalizations are divisive in an unhelpful way: "reform" is presented as something monolithic, which one must either take or leave ("you're either with us or against us"). In practice, of course, he has been much more pragmatic, often willing to compromise in detail (as he did in the first round of retirement reforms). But he has difficulty, apparently, in modifying his discourse accordingly. Hence his tone of exasperation. Still, he has shown himself to be adaptable in his style before. He may yet find a new voice. But he is now weakened to the point where other voices on the Right are beginning to make themselves heard. The Omnipresident is no more.

After the Carbon Tax Debacle

Éloi Laurent reflects on the way forward for ecological politics in the wake of the repudiation of the carbon tax:

La différence entre l’enthousiasme qui a entouré le « Grenelle » et l’amertume du débat sur la taxe carbone tient sans doute à la nature différente des instruments économiques qui étaient en jeu - dans un cas la régulation, et dans l’autre l’instrument fiscal, l’un et l’autre ne reposant pas du tout sur la même économie politique. Mais derrière la logique de ces instruments économiques se cache une différence plus profonde, entre, d’un côté, un processus perçu comme juste parce qu’il associait sous le regard de l’opinion dans une véritable négociation diverses parties sur un pied d’égalité, et, de l’autre côté, une mesure qui a été comprise comme décidée à huis clos par un comité d’experts et dont les ultimes arbitrages ont finalement été rendus sans concertation par l’appareil techno-politique.